Postcard From Kerala: The Spice Garden Of India
Hello my dear friends, I hope you are in the best of health and spirits as always. Actually I was supposed to be in Munnar today, but as luck would have it, I spotted these amazing spice gardens full of aromatic spices on my way from Kochi to Munnar. Therefore, I shall be able to send a postcard from Munnar only next week. But in the meantime, I am sure you would love to take a tour of a spice garden with me. In fact Kerala, one of the southern most states of this country is also called the Spice Garden of India. But before exploring this garden, let us dive into the world of spices and follow their spicy trails to understand how these have been adding flavours and taste to our dishes since so many centuries now.
The basic idea of adding spices to our dishes is to make them flavourful, colourful as well as preserve the food. But so is the role played by herbs. Then what is the difference between a spice and a herb? Well, a spice can be the bark, root, fruit or even the seed of a plant or a tree like turmeric, clove, cinnamon, pepper etc. while herbs are basically leaves of the plants like basil, rosemary, thyme, cilantro etc. It is interesting to note here that spice and herb may belong to the same plant. For example, coriander seed (a type of spice) and cilantro ( a herb) come from the same plant.
Drying red chillies
Indian curries are so popular throughout the world for its rich texture, colour, flavour, health benefits and taste too. The secret behind this is the use of various spices. In fact, we have been using spices since thousands of years now. We have a long history of trading spices with China & Rome since ancient times. India’s climate which is basically hot, humid with moderate to heavy rainfall create favourable conditions for growing spices of various types. India is not only one of the largest exporters of spices, but also producer and consumer of the same.
At The Spice Garden
This is my third visit to a spice garden and each time I have noticed a stream flowing by in the garden. So as we walked around, our guide showed us all types of spices hanging from trees and plants.
We saw some green peppercorns. They are actually fruits of a flowering vine. They are plucked in different stages of ripeness and then processed. The most common types of peppercorns are white and black. It is used whole or in powdered form. This adds a sharp and pungent flavour to the dish. They are high in antioxidants as well as have anti inflammatory properties.
Then the guide plucked a fruit, ripped it open to show us a nutmeg. This is basically a seed. This has a distinctive pungent aroma and mainly used in baking. This is generally sold as a ground spice. It has several health benefits including antibacterial properties.
Next we came across a vanilla plant. This is a flowering plant which belongs to the orchid family. It is the second most expensive spice after saffron. It is widely used in domestic as well as commercial baking.
These are cloves or aromatic flower buds of a tree. This is a staple spice of Indian cuisine. These have huge health benefits – they are high in antioxidants; believed to protect against cancer; kills bacteria; clove oil helps in maintaining oral health etc.
This is a cocoa bean. It is actually dried and fermented seed of Theobroma. Cocoa solids & butter are extracted from the same.
These are bay leaves. They are aromatic leaves. Apart from Indian cuisine, it is also widely used in European dishes.
This is the Brazilian red pineapple which has a bright red skin and is smaller than the commercial varieties. It tastes sweet and has a mild flavour.
These are just a handful of spices out of a list of so many of them like tumeric, cummin, coriander, chilli and so on.
Cooking With Herbs & Spices
Indian cuisine is rich in spices, herbs and seasoning. Our food is wholesome and cooked with lots of love and blessings by our mothers and grandmothers so as to attain spiritual, physical and emotional balance.
Spice box (masala dabba)
Every Indian kitchen has a magic box called the masala dabba which has all the essential spices to prepare any dish. In fact, the foundation of Indian cuisine is its spices. It can change humble ingredients to a finger licking meal. Apart from this, the spices also impart medicinal properties to the dish. As we all know, India is a country of diverse traditions & cultures and this is reflected in the food of each region. Every Indian household has their special spice mix which has been handed over from generation to generation. Therefore, a particular dish cannot have the same taste unlike the fast food joints. It differs from house to house; also region to region. The spices used in cooking can be whole, ground or in powdered form. Normally, the oil is heated and the spices are lightly fried or it could be also roasting the spices and then grinding them together. The common spices used in Indian cooking are turmeric, chilli powder, cumin, asafoetida, black pepper, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon etc.
Indian Spice Market
It is indeed common to find spice markets all over India. As soon as you enter such a market, a delightful aroma of various spices will welcome you warmly. Generally, the spices are sold loose. They will weigh the quantity you desire to purchase. These markets are truly colourful, delightful and aromatic as well.
Usually traditional Indian spices are stored in airtight glass or stainless jars, away from heat and water. Of course plastic jars are also used these days.
Healing Properties of Spices
In Kerala, ayurveda (a traditional Indian system of medicine) is widely practised. Ayurvedic cooking uses spices like turmeric, fennel, mint, clove, cardamon etc. to heal from within; thereby promoting health and holistic living.
In fact we add spices to our tea too which is called the masala chai. This special tea has anti inflammatory, antifungal and antibacterial properties. Normally, we prefer to sip ginger tea in the winter season; keeps cold & cough at bay.
Our lovely guide gave us a tour of this wonderful Spice Garden of Kerala; showed us all the fresh spices by plucking them from trees & plants; also spoke at length about the benefits of each one of them. We bought some spices from here to flavour our meals and please every palate. You can buy as much spice as you want, but the secret lies in adding the right spice mix in the right proportion to the right dish and only then will you be able to relish the dish; quite like the saying – variety is the spice of life, but only the right mix of emotions makes it flavourful. We thoroughly enjoyed this aromatic adventure. So, until we meet again, keep smiling and take care. Bye.